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Lori Erickson (email@example.com)
I’ve been traveling again—this time to Louisville, Kentucky, where I spent several days following in the footsteps of Thomas Merton. More on that next week. But I also spent a day touring some horse-related sites (for if you’re in Kentucky, horses loom large). So a few thoughts on those horses today.
First, I think I may be nearly the last person in America to catch Zenyatta fever. If you’re one of the clueless as well, let me give you some background. Zenyatta has been called the greatest racing filly/mare of all time, winner of 19 consecutive races. Last week, she lost her 20th and final race, though she came within a few inches of winning.
“People who didn’t know anything about horse racing became fans because of her,” said the jockey of the horse that beat her, sounding almost sorry that he was the one who helped end her phenomenal winning streak.
I’m writing about Zenyatta because when I was in Kentucky, I finally got it about horses. I know the exact moment when it happened. On a tour of a horse farm, I was standing by the side of a paddock, watching a stallion run in the sunshine. He was clearly doing it for the joy of the movement, and he was so beautiful and so strong and so graceful that the breath caught in my throat and I couldn’t help but look at him and marvel.
Later I asked my guide how they identified promising race horses, how they knew that this one might have the right breeding and the right body, but no spark, and that this one may not have the best credentials but still had potential. “When they’re foals, you watch them play,” she explained. “The ones who might become winners just love to run. That’s what you watch for. You pick out the ones that love to run.”
So I think that’s part of what appeals to us about Zenyatta. There are so many sports that are tainted by greed and doping and bad sportsmanship (and certainly horse-racing has some negative elements too). But when you see a truly amazing horse compete, you get a sense for the joy behind their movements, because it’s clearly something they do for the sheer love of it.
And if I could wax poetic for a moment, isn’t that what we all want? To do something that requires all our strength and heart and breath, something that taxes us and brings us out of ourselves? Perhaps when we watch a racehorse like Zenyatta we get a glimpse of what that feeling is like.
Really, the one consolation of her losing is that it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to her. And that is another lesson she teaches us, is it not?
Today being Veterans Day, I want to tell you a little bit about the veteran I am remembering today—someone I never met, but a man who has been an invisible presence for me ever since I visited the National World War I Museum in Kansas City last March (I wrote about the museum here).
Ben Hill was a farmer’s son from northeast Iowa who died on a French battlefield during World War I. If he would have come home from the war, he would have become my grandfather. Instead, Ben’s fiancée married his brother, and because of that twist of fate I am different in some unknown, but perhaps significant, way.
When I toured the museum, it was in a display on trench warfare that Ben came most vividly to my mind. By 1917, 35,000 miles of trenches crisscrossed the Western Front, places of misery for those who lived, fought and died in a half-underground world. Standing in a replica of a narrow trench with the sound of exploding shells above me, I could hear a recording of a letter sent home by a soldier. It was then that I began to glimpse what it must have been like for Ben to go from the quiet of rural Iowa to that twilight world of fear, violence, and disease.
After I returned home I began to do some research, and with the help of several kind officials I learned that Ben had been a member of Company F, 58th Infantry, of the Army’s Fourth Division, and that he was killed in the Battle of the Marne on August 7, 1918. After his death, his body was returned to a quiet country graveyard not far from where he had grown up.
Last month I visited his grave, for I wanted to pay my respects to someone I had never met, but who now lives as a presence—however faint—in my life. Until I visited the National World War I Museum, I had never given a second thought to him. But today I want to tell you about him, to honor his life and his sacrifice.
Perhaps you have someone like Ben you are honoring today too. We should be grateful, should we not?
Do not give up then, but work away at it till you have this longing. When you first begin, you find only darkness, and as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don’t know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast reaching out towards God. Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God, and stop you both from seeing God in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection. Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after the One whom you love. For if you are to feel the Presence and see God in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness.
The Cloud of Unknowing (14th century, author unknown)
You may have success in life, but then ask yourself — what kind of life was it? What good was it if you’ve never done the thing you wanted to do all your life or went where your heart and soul wanted to go? When you find that feeling, stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off.
It is marvelous, is it not, what YouTube brings to us? Oh, I know it has way too many videos of people acting stupid and of terriers dancing to disco music, but then you come across something that is so beautiful and so transporting that you forgive it for all the sludge.Today I’m linking to such a piece, a 12-minute film clip called Alice Dancing Under the Gallows. Save it until you can watch it in full, because it’s worth the time. It’s the trailer for a documentary about Alice Sommer Herz, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. Alice was 39 and a concert pianist in Prague when she was sent to Theresienstadt, which was a “show camp” designed to demonstrate to the world that the Nazis treated their Jewish prisoners well. The inmates knew they lived under a death sentence, but they also were allowed privileges denied in other camps.
Alice continued to play music in captivity (it helped that she had committed so many pieces to memory). The film clip is about the power of music to help people transcend suffering, but it’s also about optimism and forgiveness and what makes life worth living. (It makes me think as well of my time in Germany and of the baffling question of how a culture could produce both Bach and the Holocaust.)
“I am richer than other people because of what I’ve experienced,” Alice says. And we are richer for having the chance to spend even 12 minutes with such a blazingly bright soul.
It is the work of the soul that pleases God most. All saints and angels rejoice over it, and hasten to help it on with all their might…. The whole of humankind is wonderfully helped by what you are doing, in ways you do not understand.
The Cloud of Unknowing
(14th century, author unknown)